IS PEOPLE REALLY EVOLVING?
Q: Are people evolving?
Bodies of light? Telepathy? Breathing underwater? Exciting ideas from sci-fi & free range mysticism suggest extraordinary physical mutations. Why not? These fantastical possibilities express the intuitions we derive from our peak moments of miraculous epiphany. However, even if such mythical shifts are the destiny of our species, it is unlikely that they will emerge anytime soon through the known dynamics of evolutionary transformation.
Yet there is something in these fabulous ideas that speaks to the heart of the question. We are, of course, evolving in many tiny ways. The richness of our cellular and bacterial substrates are constantly nuancing our adaptation to physical, biological and cultural niches — but who cares! We want to know about those light bodies. Or, at the very least, we are most interested in any subsets of evolution that are significant, positive & imminent.
The great liminal communities of Metamodernism, Integralism, GameB, etc. present a plausible (“trans/rational”) story about a world-historical shift. We are awakening to Second Tier cognition. We are forced by the metacrisis to mutate beyond the win-loose dynamics of Game A into a techno-spiritual domain of non-rivalrous solutions. The integrative Supermind is ingressing into the Worldsoul to carry us beyond the adolescence of civilization. Good stuff. Do these tales collectively for a pragmatically edifying metanarrative, regardless of its accuracy, that can help stabilize and mobilize people? Is all this, on the other hand, nihilistic foolishness hidden in idealism? Or is it perharps a way of describing some valid but complex shift that is really occurring among the human species or the entire biosphere?
All of the above?
None of the above?
It seems we shall have to collaboratively ponder how evolution is related to psychological and cultural changes… ‘
GENES, MEMES & TOOLS
The most common notion today is that “noospheric” psychosocial structures emerged from, and continue to float upon, the biological realm — just as living organisms depends upon geological and atomic regimes of matter.
This stack of informational layers allows us to make sense of the modern deep time data that have allowed us to reconstruct a Big History grounded in reason, experimentation and collaboration. This story contains what Gregg Henriques calls “joint points” at which new regimes (requiring new sciences) emerge within the historical process. Beautiful. Powerful. Every so often the universal adds another floor to the house it is building.
Yet this is not how classical saints and sages seemed to view the situation. The perennial notion suggested that all these layers either always existed or had been installed in reverse order. The scaffolding upon which the vine of evolution grows was produced by a descent/involution from the immaterial code of Reality. So maybe the spirit of the cultural human mind is more primordial than matter?
Either we now know better than the great sages of history OR we need to challenge ourselves by trying to integrate their views. Tricky, tricky.
To make it worse, people like Ken Wilber and Teilhard de Chardin have argued that the social and subjective dimensions of experience are not prior or subsequent but, on the contrary, that they are sideways/parallel facets present at every stage of external complexity.
And the problem of how evolution relates to the psychosocial domain of human beings does not just concern temporal primacy and the arrangement of stacks. It also involves the logic of our basic ideas about evolution. Bret Weinstein and Richard Dawkins famously disagreed on this topic. Dawkins feels that memes (units of cultural information) largely escape from the neo-Darwinian logic of genetic reproduction and fall into other analytic domains such as psychology and sociology. Bret and Heather Weinstein, on the other hand, argue for an “omega principle” which presumes that we can decode direct genetic utility even for odd memetic situations such as voluntary celibacy. Of course, in order to do that, one must think of evolution as a matter of lineages…
So there are a lot of basic questions available for philosophical debate. Perhaps we should bracket those queries for now and try to stay close to the contemporary scientific narrative. If we are interested in how our species currently stands relative to evolution we may want to get a sense of what “evolution” has been doing up until now.
Assuming, therefore, that our records, interpretations, carbon dating schemes, mathematical calculations, etc. are correct, we have a useful, inspiring story that covers the last 14 billion years.
Judging by the graffiti I’ve seen in public washrooms, it appears that some kind of information energy-system underwent a (surprising or regular) transition into dynamic, expanding swarms of fields and pseudo-particles. A percentage of these colliding and exchanging quasi-bits grouped themselves into very stable atoms. A lot of those atoms blundered into molecular stabilities. Some of those molecular stabilities clustered into what the kids call “solar systems” and, on parts of at least one such heliosphere, the slope of entropic flow and the available computational possibilities permitted a few of these molecules to forms complex groupings that were temporarily self-reinforcing. A subset of those networks survived longer than others because they happened to have the bits necessary for more readily rebuilding or duplicating themselves before perishing. The fraction of these living that exhibited so-called “death” and “sex” exhibited an accelerated capacity to modify themselves for persistence in changing niches. They improvised their way into becoming crystal, viral, bacterial, vegetal and fungal systems. A few of those systems clumped into larger membrane sacs and became neuromobile organisms with complicated behavioral-investment calculations. A small percentage of those organisms worked out things like tool usage, extended childhood, bodily self-awareness mapping and explicit personal memory. And a small percentage of THAT small percentage negotiated the production of a neuro-electric operating system capable of symbolic self-reflection, meta-tool use and hyper-adaptability.
One of those species survives today and the record of it’s “marks” and “constructions” is called human history.
We do not what other pathways could have (or were) followed on this world or other worlds. We do not know whether the process is highly random, drawn by a complex attractor or tweaked by interested parties. Nonetheless, we have a story in which many emergent regimes led to the appearance of sapient hominids who then underwent several apparent cultural shifts leading to the current world-historical moment.
It is damnably hard not to extend that perceived momentum into the assumption that another dramatic “upgrade” is underway…
Surely we are on the cusp of some new transition just as remarkable as the progressive leap from matter to life, animal to man, illiterate to civilized, savage to Christian?
Modern minds naturally conceive their own history — informed by rapid technological change, the propaganda of commercial innovation & the accumulating knowledge of deep evolutionary history — as an adventure story in which we are undergoing a legendary leap forward if we can just avoid the pit of snakes on either side of our narrow pathway.
But, of course, that is not the only way to make sense of history.
Our noble and ignoble ancestors suggested that there was “nothing new under the sun.” Perhaps cosmic, biological and cultural history is cyclic at best and degenerative at worst? We balk at this childish notion but are we actually in a position to assume that the wisest ancestors were idiots compared to us?
Criticism of the notion of modern human social and psychological evolution does not just occur through comparison with the vision of archaic and perennial sages but it also arises from so-called postmodern philosophies. Deeply modern thinkers who explore the structural dynamics and marginalized externalities of the system in which we are embedded tend to conclude that modernity has a distorted perspective.
This leads to the following triad of conclusions:
we need a new paradigm will save us
the new paradigm will be aligned with the ecological, pluralistic, socialistic, right brained, contextual, authenticity-oriented sensibility of postmodernists
the key to this shift will be conscious paradigm-shift agents “getting the message out” and “convincing people”
And, although this is clearly necessary in many respects, it seems to oddly replicate the very assumptions that it is critiquing. It tells a tale of heroic individual agents generating progress through marketing. Next years automobiles will be better than every thanks to our amazing innovation team!
We might assume that this similarity is irrelevant because it simply characterizes all attempts to secure or enhance wellbeing. Yet there are some worrisome possibilities. Does a deep examination of history show that the people who have tended to trigger paradigm-shifts were actually the ones who wished to do that? And what about Martin Heidegger?
Heidegger? Yes, Heidegger…
Didn’t he say that revolutionaries are asymptotic to change? Should we be concerned that the standard seekers-for-change are part of the standard system’s self-regeneration function? Constantly approaching but, by design, never achieving the progressive shift?
Keep voting for change if you want to keep getting the same old problems!
Another reason why Heidegger is interesting in a discussion about psychosocial evolution is that claimed technology has a momentum of its own. Individually we can critique our world-system in favor of a depth-oriented, neo-romantic phenomenological way of being in the world but the technical logic of our society continue to try everything it can until it destroys itself or produces a “god” that can hold it in check.
People like Alexander Bard (Are there people like Alexander Bard?) will argue in a similar fashion that technology is the real driver of the apparent changes in human culture and attitudes. It may appear as though we have drawn many deep conclusions and mutated into impressive new forms of collaboration and understanding but maybe that is all just the side effect of producing and adapting to new regimes of tools? Why not? Our bodies have been fairly constant (or degenerating) since the emergence of the human species so why would our mental capacity have altered? We seem to be capable of locally customized versions of the basic set of human cognitive functions that we have always had.
If most of our apparent psychosocial evolution has just been adaptation to technology rather than improvement then it is likely that the near future will bring more of the same — a technical adjustment of sensibility rather than a breakthrough, upgrade or next step up the ladder.
So are humanity beings and human societies actually improving?
ANCESTORS & DIGITAL PHONES
People do argue for certain trends of improvement that hold, like Moore’s law, across different technical strategies. Jeremy Rifkin believes that our energy-harvesting strategies have definitely been changing in a particular direction — getting more efficient and more powerful. And he would say that the baseline of our explicit public dedication to empathy has also been on a gradual upward curve over the course of many different technological modes.
Infamously, Steven Pinker makes the statistical argument that average rates of war, criminal violence, viral death & extreme poverty have been trending downward for centuries or even millennia. He’s a smart guy but this is a risky claim to make. Not only does it seem to bubble up from a certain self-satisfied liberal psychology but each of the metrics of wellbeing can be argued. Also, of course, Nassim Taleb has obsessively pointed out that one disastrous black swan event — produced by the same social strategies Pinker is applauding — could occur at any moment and completely readjust the meaning of the statistics. If one modern lab leak, nuclear exchange or miscalibrated AI kills 6 billion people tomorrow then the historical trendline suddenly takes on a very different significance.
So we are left with a great deal of ambiguity.
The source of this ambiguity in how we gauge the possible progress of humanity does not lie only in the difficult of getting the right information. It also stems from our affective reluctance to process both very good and very unsettling data. Most of us are bad at accepting unflattering news AND bad at embracing pleasure or satisfaction. So we are likely to have some perverse processing issues wherever the historical data suggests that we have declined, been static or succeeded. We might not be great at agreeing that there IS or IS NOT evidence of human improvement.
At the very least we might be able to calibrate our appreciation of ancient human beings. In Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, much evidence is presented for the idea that human beings are more complex than simple historical narratives have suggested. Cultural shifts that appear to be part of a linear tale of progress are undermined by the realization that almost all known social variants have been in play since the beginnings of human society. We did not simply grow from savages who exceeded the Dunbar number and then had to exchange naturalness for bosses until the gains and sorrows of the modern political economy became inevitable. We actually tried all kinds of different things and in fact might have been more rational, more liberated, more imaginative and more productive under certain conditions now regarded as “primitive.”
Graeber and Wengrow point out that the different social styles and corrective conclusions draw by different human lineages are not directly correlated to their improved technological capacity. A great deal of our psychological and social sensibility is independent of whether have hammers, shovels or guns. However these authors do not — as Marshall McLuhan and others did — focus explicitly on communication technologies.
McLuhan hypothesized that the specific tools used to media our interpersonal exchanges and knowledge of the world have effects on our brains. The neural networks connected to the processing of information from sensory organs are modulated by the particular senses that have to engage the communication tools. Literacy, print & widespread public signage are, for example, likely to cultivate a much richer and more dominant visual sensibility — necessary to decode and track these densely subtle ocular signals. This may come at the expense of the aural dominance found in the chattering acoustics of village and cathedral.
Widespread shifts in the ratio of the brain regions connected with sensory organs will rapidly produce a shift in culture attitudes and expectations. It seems like this is an argument that our apparent evolution is a response to technology but it has to be weighed against the Graeber/Wengrow conclusion that our set of available attitudes is fairly independent of our particular tools.
And, of course, if you were a cognitive science who embraces the extended notion of mind you might say that “tools” are within the evolution of the self-system.
IS THE BRAIN CHANGING?
Psychosocial evolution is closely linked with how flexible or innate we consider our brain capacities to be. It is quite possible to examine the archaeological history of skulls and conclude that our species has roughly the same — or perhaps even a little smaller — brains than early humans. And if our brains are not changing then why would we assume that mental and social capacities are any different now than they were 50 000 years ago?
Yet even that is not as obvious as it seems.
Despite some interesting new tools in experimental archeology, we generally only have the large and hard structures that have remained over long aeons. We do not see the subtle and soft tissue modifications that could occur within the same architectures of the skull.
The provocative proposal by Julian Jaynes, for example, cannot be well adjudicated by current physical evidence. He asserted that there has recently been a physically small but psychologically radical shift in the behavior of the corpus callosum that mediates between the brain hemispheres. Basing his conclusions on the records of cultural artifacts, he speculates that only in the last few thousand years did human populations start to experience an “I” who “thinks my thoughts.”
That’s a potentially radical phase of human psychosocial evolution with physical correlates that might not show up in the examination of archeological bodies. Likewise we can speculate similarly in many other areas. Consider that our brains endogenously produce the potent hallucinogen DMT. A very tiny shift in the ratio of production relative to hormones like seratonin, dopamine, etc. might constitute an evolutionary rupture of huge significance that could occur independently of technology and in ways that are hidden to many facets of the archaeological record.
It seems like we just cannot tell whether there is significant ongoing human psychosocial evolution or not — and that we have to challenge ourselves by keeping all options on the table. But that still does not situate relative to a great narrative of historical progress….
History’s more integrative theologians have generalized a strange philosophical notion that combines eroticism, spirituality and progress — eros. It is a gravity-like attractive force that draws hearts, bodies and ideas together into forms of emergent higher synthesis that creatively and progressively approximate a cosmic, supra-personal Being.
Taken literally, it appears to be a mythological deus ex machina that enters the world from outside and skews us toward our divine destiny. That is inspiring and locks into some of our intuitions. However it is easy to challenge from the point of view of skeptical philosophy and contemporary science who require largely non-teleological stories whose agents are all “within” the system.
The story of Eros can also be told in a more complex and metaphorical way. Perhaps the initial parameters of the universe establish a slope in probability space which, regardless of particular local evolutionary changes, trends over long ranges of time toward a type of patterning that we associate with more structural complexity and deeper subjective interiority and more profound interpersonal communion?
Perhaps the adaptation or organisms to local evolutionary niches is always accompanied by a subtler adaption to the more universal principles that for the real but nonlocal niche of the informational structure of reality?
Nonlocal adaption, as a trend spread across local adaption, may have some significant advantages that are slowly encoded into human history. This is similar to the Jordan Peterson argument that there is an evolutionary incentive to gain generic advantage, to become good at multiple games and secure a self across different types of locally successful personalities.
Perhaps our problem lies in the tendency to imagine evolutionary progress along a single axis. I have tended to play with a “coaxial model” in which (a) the technologically driven, historically-phased expansion of the diversity of explicitly recognized types of information patterns, is envisioned as perpendicular to (b) the spiritual stages of generic human integration/being which have been present since our basic anatomy was established and which operate via whatever social and technological worldspace is present.
In this view, with which I will end this essay, there is a real form of depth progress that is independent of our historical, cultural and technological situation — and we should not pretend that we are on the cusp of the “next level” merely because we are engaged in the “new thing.”
On the other hand, our adaptive evolution with technological may not be homogenous. Some of it may be specific and local but other aspects of it may give evidence of potentially positive extended over multiple kinds of technical environments. We do not know the degree to which hidden neurological changes may have accompanied phases of human history. We also cannot say with complete confidence what model of Time and involution/evolution is most accurate.
Pragmatically, we will have to say that regardless of any larger evolutionary trends, we must both adapt to our new socio-technological environments AND attempt to skew them in ways that are supportive to the general types of successful inner (and mutual) growth that have always been afforded by the human experience. And we cannot afford to passively assume that this will occur automatically nor can we pretend that whatever new sensibility is bubbling out of the worldspace is an improvement, a leap forward, a sign of the human mind steering itself toward its inevitable victory.
Unless, of course, believing that king of nonsense, helps you perform more effective self-efforts, collaboration and timeless understanding….